The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Red Priest aims to revive the excitement of Baroque classics. It performs music by Handel, Bach and Telemann this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

February 24, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The group is called Red Priest – the nickname given to the red-haired violinist and popular Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, who taught music at a girls’ school in Venice.

But during its Madison debut appearance, the group will not be playing music by Vivaldi. The focus will shift to Handel, with some Bach and Telemann thrown in.

Red Priest (below) performs this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater. Tickets are $27.50 to $42.50.

0288-Joan Solo Tour Press Image FINAL

Compared to various rock groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Cirque de Soleil  for its flamboyant presentation of centuries-old classics, the group’s program is called “Handel in the Wind” – recalling the famous song “Candle in the Wind” by chart-topping rocker Elton John.

But that seemingly unorthodox approach, according to Red Priest, fits right in with the true underlying aesthetic of Baroque music, which is too often treated as rigid and codified, predictable and boring.

For more information and background, including the full program, critics’ reviews and how to get tickets, visit:

http://uniontheater.wisc.edu/Season15-16/red-priest.html

Red Priest member and recorder player Piers Adams (below) — whom you can also hear talking about  “Handel in the Wind” in a YouTube video at the bottom — recently took time from his very busy schedule to give a Q&A to The Ear:

Piers Adams

What makes your approach to Baroque music unique and different from standard playing or from the early music approach that features the period instruments and historically informed performance practices?

Actually we do use period instruments and historically informed performance practices, albeit mixed in with some more modern aesthetics. The instruments are a mixture of originals (the cello dates from 1725, in original baroque set-up), close copies (violin and harpsichord) and modern instruments (most of my recorders, which are heavily “souped up” versions of baroque originals).

We differ from the mainstream baroque groups by doing everything we can to bring the music to life — not just in a “Here’s how they used to do it” sense, but rather by “This is how we’re going to do it!”

As musicians who like to live (or at least, to play) on the edge, that means we’re naturally drawn to some of the more extreme and colorful characters and performance practices from the Baroque era, mixed in with our own ideas drawn from interest in other musical genres, such as folk, world and rock music.

red priest on stage

How and why did you come up with that approach? Why do you focus on Baroque music? Is there something special to say about Baroque music?

After years of bowing down to the authority of the early music movement — which has a habit of policing anyone who disagrees with its creed or who wants to show a bit of individuality — it was a wonderful realization that in fact it’s OK to do one’s own thing!

As soon as we made that break, we found ourselves on the edges of that rather safe (but dull) world of historically accurate re-creation and in a genre of our own, where anything goes as long as it’s musically satisfying to us and to the audience.

In fact, much of the most satisfying playing does come from “following the rules,” where the rules tell us to perform with wild abandon and heartfelt expression in every note!

Baroque music is a wonderful place for experimentation and co-creation -– perhaps more so than any other area of classical music, because so much is already left to the performer to decide, and because arrangement and transcription were such important aspects too.

Baroque music also has a harmonic and rhythmic structure that many people can relate to, perhaps closer to modern-day pop and rock than the more harmonically complex music of the later Classical and Romantic periods.

red priest jumping

Why are you emphasizing George Frideric Handel in your Madison program? In your view, is his music underrated or underperformed? How important or great is Handel?

We have toured the US close to 40 times, and try to bring something new with us where possible. The latest creation is a transcription of music from Handel’s “Messiah,” which we’ve converted into a colorful instrumental journey, bringing out the drama in a very different way from the normal choral performance.

Handel is regarded as one of the greatest Baroque composers, but this is the first time we have created a project around his music. I don’t know why we waited so long, as he wrote some amazing tunes!

handel big 3

How would you compare Handel to Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, whose music you will also be performing?

Handel’s music is in some ways simpler than Bach’s, which tends to be very dense and complex, but both can produce moments of high drama and great beauty.

Telemann was above all a great craftsman, and in his day was considered the greatest composer of all, but now is held in rather lower esteem than Bach and Handel – maybe partly because of his frequent reliance upon gypsy folk melodies in his works.

The pieces we have chosen bring out the characters of these three great Baroque masters.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

We’re greatly looking forward to this, our first visit to Madison!


Classical music: Go inside the Money Opera at the Met with the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial reporter James B. Stewart.

March 30, 2015
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City has been having major financial and labor problems during the tenure of its General Director Peter Gelb (below).

Peter Gelb 2.jpg

But it is hard to find a better researched or more detailed account of what is going on than the account that was written by the journalist James B. Stewart and appeared in the March 23 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

A graduate of the Harvard University Law School, Stewart (below), you may recall, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and currently a columnist for the New York Times. He has also written best-selling books. Such qualifications give him added credibility when reporting on the fiscal state of the arts.

James B. Stewart

Plus, Stewart got access to documents and records as well as to members of the board of directors. His account is filled with specific details about costs and fundraising that are convincing.

The discrepancy, for example, between what the Met said was the official cost of its recent and controversial “Ring” cycle (below) by Robert Lepage of Cirque du Soleil and what others say it cost is both astonishing and appalling.

Lepage Ring set

In an interview with Jim Zirin, Peter Gelb defends himself and his tenure in a YouTube video at the bottom.

To The Ear, the larger question is whether some of the same criticisms apply to other large performing arts groups, opera companies and symphony orchestras in other cities.

But that is another story for another day.

Here is a link to the story about the Met by James B. Stewart:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/a-fight-at-the-opera

 


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